The sun was setting. It was a fiery vermillion orb skimming the horizon, casting flame-edged shadows everywhere. Ryoma trudged home, the brim of his cap shielding his eyes from what little light there was. The sunlight at the moment was too weak to actually do much harm, as long as he didn't intend to stare directly into it for too long, but he wore his cap low anyway.
Tennis training had been prolonged that day. And it had been followed by an extremely long lecture by the club's annoyingly long-winded team captain. And just when he'd thought he was home free, the tennis coach had decided to have a talk with him. I'd like a few words with you, Ryoma-kun.
Those 'few words' had stretched out into an hour, almost an hour and a half. Ryoma had tuned her out after the first fifteen minutes. He recalled vaguely having heard her say something about well he had come along ever since joining the club, and that she was proud of his improvement—not that he was bad, because he was one of those people just born to play tennis—and that in two years time, he'd most likely be team captain.
Ryoma, I want you to be Seigaku's pillar of support. Frankly, he thought that was just about the only thing of value he'd heard her say in the eighty-four minutes that she had been speaking to him.
He didn't feel like going home for dinner. At least, not yet. His mother was used to him occasionally coming home late for dinner, and sometimes, far too late for dinner. She said that she understood—Ryoma had no idea what she understood, since he himself hadn't known that there was anything to be understood—and simply told him to be careful when he was out at night.
He fingered the shoulder strap of his tennis bag. He was still keyed up from practice. He'd actually had a challenge today. There was one regular who never lost. Never. It wasn't the captain. The Seigaku tennis team's captain wasn't infallible. He was, however, a very nice guy whom everyone liked because of his easy-going nature and tact. They all overlooked his tendency to ramble a bit when giving pep talks and speeches.
He'd played that regular today. He hadn't gone in with any expectations. He knew his limits, knew his abilities, and he knew that he'd played well that day. He'd lost. Just barely, but he'd lost nonetheless. He hated losing.
There was a public court nearby. It was open even at night, and everyone was allowed to play. Every even day was for doubles games. Ryoma didn't really like playing doubles. He preferred singles, since he had a tendency to go after every single ball. You just couldn't play doubles that way. But the endorphin rush was too much for him to just go home. Doubles it was.
The lights lit up the court bright as day. It was really quite late, and most of the players were packing up to go home for dinner. But there was a small group of people still milling around. He set his racket bag down on the bleachers and took out his racket. He didn't need to warm up much, since practice hadn't been so long ago.
He was retying his shoelaces when a large shadow fell over him. He looked up, a quizzical look on his face. It was one of the guys from the last group of people. He had reddish hair that curled out in a way that defied gravity. There was a friendly smile on his face.
"Hey, you want to play with us?"
Ryoma shrugged. "I suppose. There's no one else here."
"Great!" The redhead turned to face his friends and called out loudly, "Ochibi says he'll play with us!"
Ochibi? He snorted in annoyance. "I'm not short."
The others were just joining their friend. Ryoma watched as they drew closer and realized that amongst them, he really was rather short. He would be seventeen in slightly more than six months, and at 170 cm, he was no pushover. But these guys were simply taller than him. He scowled.
"Nya, I'm Kikumaru Eiji!" He grabbed Ryoma's wrist and tugged the shorted guy reluctantly towards his friends. Gesturing as he introduced them, Eiji rattled off their names at breakneck speed. Ryoma could barely keep up.
Sensing his confusion, one guy with amazingly green eyes stepped up and laid a hand on Eiji's shoulder. "Eiji, you talk too fast sometimes." He laughed. "You forget that not everyone is used to your speed of conversation."
The redhead immediately calmed down a bit. He smiled sheepishly up at the green-eyed guy. "Yeah, whoops." Turning his attention back to Ryoma, he shrugged. "Sorry, my bad." Then he proceeded to repeat what he'd said, but at a slower pace.
"This is my best friend, Oishi Syuuichirou." He beamed at Oishi, who raised a hand in semblance of a wave. "And this is Momoshiro Takeshi."
"Yo." He had jet-black hair spiked up—rather like a broom, Ryoma thought snidely—and eyes like amethysts. Ryoma stared at those jewelled eyes. He'd never seen a shade like that outside of a jewellery shop. Momoshiro winked at him and he blinked owlishly in stunned reply. Embarrassed at having been caught staring, he looked away.
"And that's Kaidoh Kaoru. Ne, Kaidoh-kun, stop hiding in those shadows. Ochibi won't be able to see you."
"Stop calling me Ochibi," Ryoma muttered darkly.
"Nya, you haven't told us your name." Eiji shrugged with a grin. "By the way, that tall guy next to Kaidoh is Inui Sadaharu. Don't drink anything he gives you," Eiji warned Ryoma in a stage whisper.
"Inui's juices don't taste that bad," a new voice broke in.
Ryoma immediately turned to the source of the voice. He had never heard such a compelling voice in his entire life. It drew him in and seemed to wrap itself into every nuance of his mind. He found himself falling into a pair of sapphire blue eyes. Eiji's voice was a distant murmur, introducing the hypnotic voice and fathomless eyes as Fuji Syusuke.
"Fuji, stop staring at him."
The pair of deep blue eyes turned away.
Ryoma found himself blinking and staring at a brown-haired guy who, after himself, was the shortest in that group. As he continued staring, he realised that brown was too common a word to describe Fuji's hair. It was brown, yes, but it was a blend of numerous shades of brown that, when combined together, made a complex masterpiece of colours.
"This is Tezuka Kunimitsu," he heard Eiji say. He tore his eyes away from Fuji, only to find himself staring into solemn, bespectacled hazel eyes.
Tezuka watched the kid stare at him the way he had Fuji. When the kid had looked his fill, Tezuka looked away, breaking the hold his eyes had on Ryoma. The kid had no idea what he'd just gotten himself into. He wondered what had possessed Eiji to invite the kid to play with them. Eiji knew better than to invite random people to join them. He didn't like playing against people who couldn't hold their own against them. It was a waste of his time, regardless of the fact that they all had time enough to spend as they wished. Still, he gave Eiji the benefit of doubt and let Eiji introduce the kid to the last member of their group—Kawamura Takashi.
"We'll follow the court's rule and play doubles. Is that okay with you, Ochibi?"
"For the last time, my name isn't Ochibi!"
"Then what is it?" Eiji asked. "You never told us."
"Nya? Only one name?"
Ryoma sighed, scowling. He was beginning to regret his decision to come to the public court. "Ryoma," he muttered.
"Hai, Echizen-kun! Ano… Let's see, Kaidoh and Inui were the last to play, so that leaves…" He smiled sunnily. "You get to play with me and Oishi!"
Ryoma shrugged. "Um, okay. Who am I playing with?"
"Me, of course!" Ryoma spun round to find the broom-haired guy behind. How'd he get there? "Man, this is gonna be such a fun match!"
Ryoma sighed and tilted the brim of cap further down. This was going to be a long night.
Tezuka watched the kid walk onto the court with Momoshiro. He didn't know if Echizen was simply acting cool, or if he was naturally reticent. Kawamura was appointed the referee.
"Oishi-Kikumaru pair versus Momoshiro-Echizen pair. Oishi to serve!"
Oishi served. It was an ordinary serve, and Ryoma scowled. How dare they treat him like a little kid! Oishi was capable of much more, he knew. He'd felt it when the guy had looked at him. Momoshiro returned it easily with a smile on his face. He had aimed for the corner, but Eiji volleyed it easily, managing to hit it in a position Ryoma would have sworn was not possible. He ran for the ball, his racket already swinging back for the return, only to find Momoshiro already there. It was too late to halt the forward progress of his racket, and their rackets clashed loudly.
The silence stretched for what seemed to be a very long moment.
"That was my ball!" Ryoma fumed.
"No it wasn't. It was clearly in my court."
"Look, I can reach it, it's my ball!"
Momoshiro glared at the obnoxious kid, violet eyes glittering with annoyance. "It was in my side of the court, it's my ball!"
"Um, fifteen-love," Kawamura said, announcing the score, in the hope that they would resume the game. He was usually a very peaceable person, and he always felt uncomfortable when people fought.
Apparently, Ryoma and Momoshiro hadn't heard him. They continued arguing over whose ball it was and griping about how the other had stolen their rightful ball. Kawamura sighed in exasperation. He hadn't faced a problem like this since the last time Momoshiro and Kaidoh had play doubles together. Which hadn't been any time recent. Those two were bad enough playing against each other in a singles match. They provoked each other at every single opportunity possible. This was starting to look worse.
"Momoshiro!" Tezuka barked.
Momoshiro paused long enough to glance sullenly at Tezuka. He caught the stern expression on the older player's face and snarled at Ryoma, before returning to his side of the court. "I have no idea what compelled me to be your doubles partner for this match!"
"Hey, nobody twisted your arm and made you play, you know!"
"What was I thinking when I asked Eiji to invite you over?" Momoshiro took his place and glared at Ryoma once last time before focusing on Oishi.
Tezuka watched silently as the match continued. It was proving to be rather one-sided. It wasn't that Momoshiro or Echizen was a bad player. But there was no form of communication between the two. Both had exceptionally long reaches, and often, they tended to go after the same ball. And even when one of then managed to return the ball, one side of the court was left open, since they were both on the same side.
"One game to love. Momoshiro to serve."
Tezuka felt like slapping his forehead in exasperation as the same thing happened. After either Eiji or Oishi returned the serve, both Momoshiro and Echizen would go after the ball. Their opponents knew this and were exploiting this weakness to their advantage. Off the court, Eiji and Oishi were pretty nice people, but when they were playing tennis—especially playing doubles together—they were merciless.
By the time it was Ryoma's turn to serve, they were down three games to zero. Well, he was going to change that.
Momoshiro was scowling both inwardly as well as outwardly. When he had seen the kid earlier, he'd looked somewhat lost, and Momoshiro had felt compelled to cheer him up. He knew that Tezuka didn't really like strangers joining them in their late-night games, so he'd asked Eiji if he could invite the kid over instead. Eiji was older than he was and had known Tezuka a longer time. Eiji had been more than happy to help him. He was starting to regret his decision now.
He's such a brat! He keeps running over into my side and then blaming me for getting in his way! Those balls aren't even in his damn side of the court! And I thought he was cute. Bah! He glanced back at Ryoma. "Oi! Serve already!"
Ryoma gritted his teeth when Momoshiro looked back and rushed him. "I'll serve when I want to serve, idiot!" Then taking in a deep breath to calm himself, he tossed the ball high up into the air.
Momoshiro saw the ball streak towards Oishi. It was fast, but not that fast. Che, the kid was just an average player. Momoshiro was disappointed. He thought that there'd be something more in the kid. He'd sensed it. Now he wondered if it had just been his imagination. But then, the ball landed just before Oishi's feet and spun up towards his face. Momoshiro goggled at the sight of Oishi stumbling back to avoid getting a faceful of yellow felt. Amazed, he spun round to look at Ryoma. It must have been a fluke.
Ryoma was already preparing to serve again. And when he repeated his serve, Momoshiro was floored. The kid didn't look old enough to have perfected such a serve. Perhaps Momoshiro hadn't been wrong about him after all…
Finally, they won a game. Ryoma's serve had proved to be impossible to return, and when Momoshiro glanced over at the others, he saw Tezuka discussing something with Inui. And Fuji's eyes were actually open, his smile gone. That Ryoma was able to make Fuji pay close attention was something, since Fuji's eyes were usually shut and his true emotions hidden behind a constantly smiling façade. Momoshiro had known Fuji just as long as he'd known Tezuka, but he knew better than to underestimate the smiling tennis player. The guy was a total genius. Both on the court and off it. Momoshiro decided that if there was ever a person who knew the secrets of the universe, it would have to be Fuji.
They still lost in the end. Great as Ryoma's serve was, Oishi and Eiji were a combo even Tezuka and Fuji found challenging. And the given that the tensai and his stoic friend were the best players Momoshiro had ever encountered, that was really saying something. Had him and Echizen playing in synch, he doubted that they would have been able to beat Oishi and Eiji. But to lose to them six to one was just embarrassing.
Ryoma shook his opponents' hands. He knew that he hadn't played his best—who could, with that irritating, bumbling dolt that was his doubles partner?—but Oishi and Eiji made a very good pair. It was as if they could read each other's minds. There was never a moment of hesitation on either of their parts, and their playing styles flowed seamless with each other's. Oishi's invisible rear guard complemented Eiji's showy acrobatically-inclined volleys. One tended to concentrate so hard on penetrating Eiji's defence that Oishi would be totally forgotten. Until it was too late.
He ignored Momoshiro and walked back to his racket bag. He removed a bottle and took a swig of water. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and noticed Fuji staring at him. More accurately, starting at his throat. He choked on a gulp of water and started coughing violently to expel the droplets out of his windpipe.
Immediately, Fuji averted his piercing gaze. Ryoma noticed that suddenly all eyes were on him. Never having been comfortable in the spotlight, he nudged the brim of his cap even lower, until his face was entirely shrouded by shadows. A passing cloud obscured the moon, until the court was lit only by artificial lighting. Standing on the fringes of the tennis court, their eyes seemed to glow with an unholy light. Ryoma blinked, shaking his head minutely. When he opened them again, the moon was back out, and those hypnotic eyes were normal, if a bit too stunning for his liking.
"I think I'll get going now," Ryoma muttered, as a strange sensation skittered down his spine. He started stuffing his things back into his racket bag, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
"Going so soon?"
Ryoma didn't make the mistake of turning around and getting lost in mesmerizing eyes again. He was able to place the voice as Eiji's. But the loud redhead's voice was more soothing than before, and more like Fuji's.
"It's getting late," he told them.
"But you've only played one match."
Ryoma continued packing his bag, still not turning around to face them. "As you can see, I'm not very suited to doubles. I'll only be wasting your time."
"Well, I suppose since everyone else has gone home…" Eiji put his hand over Ryoma's and stopped the teen from zipping the racket bag shut. "It should be okay if we play singles."
Eiji ignored Ryoma's protests and unzipped the bag, then pulled out Ryoma's red tennis racket. He thrust the racket into Ryoma's hands and casually tugged the objecting boy back onto the court.
"Now, who would you like to play against?" Eiji asked, his voice back to its normal loudness.
Ryoma thought for a moment, mentally sifting through the list of candidates. He certainly wasn't going to play against that oaf, Momoshiro. He wanted a challenge, someone who could help him improve to defeat that unbeatable regular player.
"Tezuka. I want to play against Tezuka."
Eiji glanced sideways at the bespectacled man who was unofficially their group's leader. "Somehow I don't think that would be possible." Tezuka was known for being especially selective in who he played against. Eiji couldn't think of anyone who had ever beaten their leader before. Fuji occasionally came close, but Eiji had never actually been witness to Tezuka losing.
"Well, it's Tezuka or nobody." Ryoma started to walk off the court again.
"If you can beat me, we'll leave you alone. But if you lose…" Ryoma was unable to resist looking at the owner of that voice. Once more, he was captured by glittering ultramarine eyes. "If you lose, I'm afraid you'll have to join us whenever we play tennis." Those spellbinding eyes slowly drifted shut once more, and Ryoma took a small staggering step back.
"What?" He blinked, not quite sure what he had seen in those mysterious eyes. "What kind of game are you playing here?" He narrowed his golden eyes in suspicion. "I'm not that kind of person."
Fuji laughed, the sound lilting and musical in the night air. "No, no, nothing of that sort. We play street tennis, and that's that. But we're always interested in gathering talented young players into our group. After all, it gets rather boring playing with the same people every time. Wouldn't you agree?"
Ryoma snorted in reply. "It doesn't matter, since I'm not going to lose."
Fuji ignored the gasps of shock at his audacity. "Let's play this match out first, before you impugn my skills, shall we?"
"Whatever." He trudged back onto the court and waited for Fuji to join him. When all Fuji did was dawdle as he retrieved his racket, Ryoma felt his temper rise once more. "Backing out now?" He asked Fuji.
Piercing blue met his challenging gaze. He felt his throat constrict for a brief moment. But it was only for the fraction of a second that he found himself unable to breathe, and then the choking sensation was gone.
"I have to discuss something with Tezuka first, about this game and the consequences. Excuse me for just a minute?"
Ryoma snorted derisively in reply. "Then you should have done it before issuing that bet." But he made no other move to actually stop Fuji—which was actually to his benefit, even if he didn't realise it.
He saw Fuji led Tezuka to a shadowy corner of the bleachers, and noticed that they were holding hands. Che, they were probably more than just friends and tennis buddies, Ryoma decided. Tezuka, he was certain, was the seme. And now Fuji was probably going to get more than merely an earful for his actions. Ryoma smirked.
He bounced the ball on his racket frame as he waited, letting the rhythmic sounds soothe him. It seemed more than the one minute that Fuji had promised before the pair walked out of the shadows. Fuji had his gentle smile back on, but there seemed to be a slightly feral quality to it now. Tezuka returned to where his tennis bag was, and Ryoma noticed that he seemed a bit dazed. Damn, Fuji must be really smart if he managed to faze his seme like that… He stopped playing with his racket and ball and caught the ball in his hand.
"Sorry for making you wait," Fuji said apologetically.
"Let's get this over with," Ryoma muttered under his breath, sure that Fuji couldn't hear him.
"Well, then, since you're so eager." He spun his racket. "Which?"
Ryoma judged the spin of the racket. "Smooth," he replied. He was usually right, and when the racket began to fall to one side, he was sure he'd get the serve. But then it spun another half turn, even as it fell to the ground.
"Rough," Fuji's silken voice said, cutting through his surprise. "Bad luck, ne Ryoma-kun?"
Ryoma narrowed his eyes and studied his adversary. Had Fuji remained silent, he would never have suspected anything. But there was something in that mesmerising voice that said that Fuji had somehow rigged spin. He scowled at Fuji, knowing that he'd never be able to prove his claim. Frankly, he had no idea how Fuji had done it either.
Fuji smiled as he read Ryoma's eyes. Oh, it would be so much fun to defeat the little boy who thought he was so good. He wouldn't crush Ryoma entirely—he was too interesting for Fuji to do that to him—but he would teach the kid a lesson in humility. Who knew, he might even be thanked for it one day. He tossed the ball up, his form perfect. And then he brought his racket down.
Ryoma stared at his hands, and then at his racket. He tested the strings, found them to be perfectly fine. He spun round and stared at the ball. It was impossible. There was no way this could be happening.
It had been going so well, he'd had Fuji under his control, and the score had been five games to nothing. He recalled musing that perhaps Fuji had been all bark, but no bite. And then he'd delivered the smash that would win him the match, and everything changed.
At first, he'd thought that it was simply the shock of Fuji returning his smash. And five games to one was still a pretty big lead. But then the four game difference had shrunk to three. And he'd begun panicking when it shrank down to two, and then one. And then Fuji had drawn even with him and he was beyond panicking.
If Fuji scored one more point…
"What's wrong, Ryoma-kun?"
He spun back around to look at Fuji. His smiling eyes were shut, but then he slowly opened one a tiny crack, and Ryoma stared, frozen. He saw laughter glittering within the ocean blue, saw a faint trace of mockery.
"This will be the last serve, Ryoma-kun." Fuji shut that one eye and served.
Ryoma felt like a mouse with its tail trapped beneath the paws of a cat. He could run a bit, and just when freedom seemed within his reach, he was jerked back, and those clawed paws would be back around him. He gritted his teeth with frustration and determination. He was not going down like this. He refused to be toyed around with.
There! An opening, a small one, and if I can get it…
He aimed, his ball control was perfect, and the ball flew just where he wanted it to. He saw it hit the court, and Fuji being on the direct opposite end was definitely not catching up to it.
What the fuc-
Fuji sent the ball back, just skimming the net. He was smiling, but his eyes were open, and what Ryoma saw there for a second terrified him. He stumbled.
"Game, set, match. Fuji, seven games to five."
I lost… I…lost.
Momoshiro wasn't sure if he was happy or not. Fuji had beaten Ryoma and in doing so, guaranteed that Momoshiro would be seeing him a lot more in future. But looking at Ryoma now, Momoshiro wasn't sure if it had been worth it. Still glancing at Ryoma, he walked over to Fuji.
"Yes?" Fuji paused for a moment in keeping his tennis equipment.
Momoshiro scratched at the imaginary itch at the nape of his neck. Fuji had always scared him, especially now, after witnessing his rather public humiliation of Ryoma. "I… I mean, it's not that you- I mean, I suppose he had it coming, but-"
"Take a deep breath, consider what you want to say, and then say it, Momo." Fuji grinned. "I promise I won't…bite. Well, not really, anyway."
Momoshiro looked back at Ryoma again. "I think… Fuji, don't you think you were a bit harsh on him?"
Fuji shrugged. "He was arrogant. He needed to learn that just because he's good, it doesn't mean that there aren't others out there better than him."
"He's young." He's got everything, still, before him.
"Besides," Fuji continued, as if he hadn't heard Momoshiro. "You like him, don't you?"
"What?" Momoshiro turned back sharply to look at Fuji. He should have known better that to think he would be able to hide something like that from Fuji.
"I seriously doubt that I'm wrong, although I'm sure that's very possible."
Fuji laid a hand on Momoshiro's arm. "Come, sit with me for a while." He led Momoshiro to a more secluded end of the bleachers. "You've never been like this before, Momo."
"I looked into his eyes, and I saw… I saw…" Momoshiro looked down at his hands, clasped tightly. "And even before that…" He stole another look at Ryoma, watched at the younger boy removed his cap to run his hand through sweat-dampened hair. "I swear, Fuji, for a moment there…I saw… I thought I felt him nearby…"
Fuji didn't say anything. He didn't have to. Emotions were pouring off Momoshiro like water off oilcloth. "And the thing is, they don't even look the least bit alike."
"Don't they?" Fuji murmured. "Ryoma's eyes… He's in there, isn't he?"
For a moment, Momoshiro was silent. And then he spoke. "It's like he was alive again, when I looked into Ryoma's eyes. It's like he was standing there, talking to me. I'd forgotten how much I missed him, how long it's been since I made myself forget. They are around the same height, and that attitude…" Momoshiro gave a shaky laugh. "Makes you feel like punching him and hugging him at the same time. It's infuriating, and at the same time, it's endearing."
"And you want him, don't you?"
"He's still so young… He's got the rest of his life spread out before him. I mean, he's still schooling!"
Fuji made a slight noise. And Momoshiro knew that he wasn't fooling anybody, least of all Fuji. "But you still want him…ne, Takeshi?" Fuji repeated, draping his arm around Momoshiro.
Momoshiro sighed and shut his eyes. In the blackness, he saw golden eyes sparkling with life and laughter. And amidst the merriment, he saw love, he saw peace. That laughter…the sound… He hung his head, knowing already what his choice would be. Gomen ne, Ryoma. Maybe one day you'll forgive me, maybe you'll understand why I chose this. He opened his eyes, and Fuji saw the resolution in his violet eyes.
"I still want him."
Finally, it's done. I've finished the first chapter! I think I started this months ago! -.-()()()()()()()
Okay, for starters, who is this mysterious 'he' that Momo was talking about? Hi-mi-tsu. Haha, meaning that I have yet to name him. I had no idea that I was going to write about him already, so I didn't give him a name yet. But be assured that I will think of one in time for the next chapter.
I've just realised that this it the weirdest (or maybe the sanest…it means the same thing to me. -.-) A/N that I've written thus far. I mean, there aren't any ramblings in it, no complaints, and i'm actually typing this out at a decent hour. It's only about 10.20 p.m. here. Amazing.